Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A Review



Rasputin: The Mad Monk is a Hammer Films production, which may explain why the film is less biopic and more horror film. With only a magnetic performance from Christopher Lee to recommend it, Rasputin: The Mad Monk tells us nothing of the rise and fall of this most notorious of figures.

Renegade mystic Grigori Rasputin (Lee) finds pleasures in the flesh of nubile bar-wenches, especially after performing apparent miracles. Scandal forces Rasputin out of his monastery, but this is a blessing in disguise.

This allows him to travel to St. Petersburg, where he quickly befriends two people. The first is disgraced Doctor Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco), who is forced to make a living by challenging others to drinking contests. The second is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), who happens to be a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina Alexandra Renee Asherson). Rasputin quickly bullies the former and seduces the latter, his mesmerizing power irresistible to everyone.  

With Sonia in his grip, he gets her to endanger the Czarevitch so that he can come to save him. Rasputin now is close to total power, alarming two other courtiers. Sonia's brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen) is appalled at Sonia's seduction, but now enraged at her suicide due to Rasputin's influence and rejection of her as his once-mistress. His friend Ivan (Francis Matthews) initially wants nothing to do with any plot to kill this meddlesome priest, but finally agrees to try and kill him. Rasputin, however, proves hard to kill, and it will take extraordinary measures to eliminate this threat once and for all.

It is surprising that the real story of Rasputin, particularly his gruesome end, is not exploited in The Mad Monk despite the great opportunity to do so.  In the film, we see him fall to his end and that's the end of it. In reality, the man was shot, poisoned and eventually thrown into a river where he eventually drowned. I do not think, however, that The Mad Monk was interested in historical accuracy.

Instead, it was interested in a lurid subject that could mix sex with horror. We get that right from the beginning, when this shadowy figure comes to an inn and first saves a woman from death and then tries to rape her daughter. The Mad Monk uses Rasputin's story to create a more traditional horror film. 

The Mad Monk's screenplay by Anthony Hinds (writing as John Elder) does not answer what genuinely drives Rasputin. Is it a lust for power? Is it mere arrogance? Insanity? Truly demonic powers? We also barely touch on how dangerous Rasputin was or his hold on Czar Nicholas II and especially Czarina Alexandra. There is a hint of it when we see Rasputin hypnotizing the Czarina, but unlike the other women he meets, he has a strictly hands-off approach with her. Why not seduce the wife of Russia's autocrat? It would have been a major feather in his cap, but The Mad Monk does not bother explaining this. It also does not make clear if Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), another lady-in-waiting who serves as the bait for Rasputin's killing, actually sees Sonia put the Czarevitch in danger or not. 

To be fair, Hinds does throw in some good lines. The Czarina's personal physician Dr. Zieglov (John Bailey) learns he, through Rasputin's influence, is being replaced with the disgraced Zargo. Angrily turning to Rasputin, he says, "I always knew she was stupid. Now I know she's mad!".  

The film has some peculiar acting. Shelley's Sonia is at times comical in her hysterics. Of particular note is when Rasputin dumps her. Her cries of agonized despair at losing her lover along with attempts to kill him will be more funny than horrifying to viewers. Lee, however, excels in the role. He is intense throughout, making Rasputin a menacing figure. Director Don Sharp has a great moment when Peter enters Rasputin's mansion, a gift from the Empress. All we hear is Lee's voice as Peter tries to find him in the dark. It is a very effective sequence, made more so by Lee's voice acting.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk was, again, not interested in history but in horror. While it did not hit the mark with me, it is not without some positives. Christopher Lee would have made a great Rasputin in a better film, but on the whole, no one will be mad about the monk. 


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